Winter Gym Workouts for Hiking Fitness
By Chuck Scott
Winter weather may have temporarily forced you to put your backpack, sleeping bag and hiking boots in storage, but that doesn't mean it's time to log long hours in front of the TV. The last thing you want to do is give up the conditioning level you worked so hard to earn all summer and fall.
A local gym workout might not equal the sense of accomplishment of conquering a mountain nor will it replace the solitude that nature can provide. The good news is there's a wide range of gym workouts that can help you maintain if not improve your base fitness level — whether you're a seasoned backpacker or a beginner with your sights set on bagging that first 10,000-foot peak.
A good winter gym workout program for hiking fitness focuses on three areas: Aerobic conditioning, strength/weight training and stretching/flexibility.
There are plenty of great aerobic options available, including swimming, taking a spinning class or tailoring your own training session. Nothing beats actual climbing for building leg strength and improving your aerobic conditioning, and that makes a stair-climbing machine the workout of choice for many hikers.
An interval workout on a treadmill also will get the heart rate going, and some believe it's better than a stair-climber or an elliptical because it better imitates the actual motion of hiking. Use the built-in hill program or manually change the elevation every couple minutes.
If you don't have access to a gym but live or work in a multi-story building, climb away. A stairwell works just as well.
Another great way to strengthen your legs while improving your aerobic conditioning is with a step-aerobic workout. Get an aerobic step that's 8- to 10-inches high and complete a series of step ups and step downs with each leg. Grab a dumbbell with each hand to increase the difficulty level.
You can add a weighted backpack and hiking boots to any of these workout options to simulate a real climb.
The workouts should last 30 minutes to 45 minutes and be completed three or four times a week. Work at 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate to maintain a basic base level of fitness. If a multiday backpacking trip is in your future, make sure you work your legs on consecutive days to fully prepare.
There are three main areas to target: your legs, your abdomen/core and your back and shoulders. Here are some suggestions for each.
Lunges are a perfect way to strengthen the quads, hamstrings and glutes. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, then take a stride and drop the knee of your back leg almost to the floor. Return to the standing position. Add weights in each hand to raise the intensity.
A variation on the lunge that puts less strain on the knee is to place the front foot on an elevated step.
Squats are also effective, as are leap-up/leap-down exercises, a variation on step aerobics in which you're jumping with both feet onto an elevated platform.
While a properly fitted backpack allows you to carry much of the weight on your hips, strengthening your back and shoulders will make any pack feel lighter.
Any of the back stations at the gym are fine, but pay special attention to working the upper trapezius muscles, which connects the lower neck to the top of your shoulder on each side of your back. The barbell shrug is best to target this area.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, hold a barbell with both hands in front of you and lift your shoulders toward your ears in a shrugging motion. This exercise also can be done with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms at your side.
Two of the most efficient ways to combine strength training with an aerobic workout are circuit training and the rowing machine, which is great for working your back and legs simultaneously.
This is the area that holds the rest of the body together, helps maintain proper posture, and provides critical balance when backpacking.
Crunches, reverse crunches (pull your knees toward your abdomen while lying on your back), planks, incline sit-ups and drills on a balance trainer are all effective methods of strengthening your core.
Whether you have time for a full yoga routine or simply a few runner stretches, it's important to make stretching a part of your daily routine.
Yoga in particular can relax and elongate muscles and tendons. That will improve your flexibility and you'll reduce the likelihood of an injury, two major benefits once you get back out on the trail.
You also might want to take a good look at dynamic stretching, which incorporates active movement into a stretching routine. Some examples are high-knee running (use your standard running form except you're bringing each knee higher than normal); the toy soldier (while walking, keep your front leg and knee straight and bring your foot as high as you can with each step, flexing your toes); and the quad walk (with each step, reach back and pull each ankle as close to your butt as you can.)
These moves can be valuable not just to augment an offseason workout but as a year-round tool as well.